At Home in the Neighborhood

August 12, 2020

Many years ago I spent three weeks touring around East Africa with a friend who was a tutor for missionary kids there. At the end of that time, my journey home started with an overnight stay in a "missionary guest house," a kind of hotel for missionaries. When I first stepped into the guest house I immediately relaxed. It was like being transported back to the US: the look and feel of the building was Western: carpets on the floors, framed paintings on the walls – even the construction materials were Western: drywall over 2x4 stud walls. It felt like home.

At that moment I realized that I had been slightly but continually stressed for three weeks, living in a foreign culture where I didn't speak the language and everyone stared at me.

More recently I spent 10 years doing youth ministry at an immigrant church – Praise Presbyterian. As it was a Korean-speaking church, it was a mono-ethnic church – this is a valid reason (perhaps the only valid reason) for having a mono-ethnic church. I have always been in awe of immigrants, who choose to move to a foreign land and live in a foreign culture. It takes a special kind of grit to do that. I imagined that "church" for them was something like that guest house for me – a respite from the stress of living in a foreign culture six days a week, a chance to interact with others in a way that didn't require thought, a chance to worship in their heart language. A place to relax. A place like home.

Praise church generously supported missionaries around the world, but, understandably, made no effort to engage the neighborhood around them. They could not invite their neighbors to church since they did not understand Korean. Also, inviting non-Koreans would be bringing in the foreign culture that the church provided respite from. One time, I suggested they invite the neighborhood kids to their VBS, since, after all, it would be conducted entirely in English, and it was a common outreach technique at American churches. But I was met with looks that ranged from confusion to horror. Church was for themselves, not outsiders.

My focus at that church was the high school kids. I wondered what they were learning – and failing to learn – about how to "do church." Their church did not engage the local community. The kids did not realize that it was only due to language that their parents could not do this. They probably just thought that's how church was.

For many years, Graceway has largely followed the same pattern – a commuter church that generously supports foreign missions but has given little thought to our New Brunswick neighborhood.

But now, in this season of social unrest and new awareness of the deep brokenness all around us, there is movement. Enoch Kuo is leading our Faith and Politics Working Group in some very thoughtful and challenging discussions. New folks have joined the Missions Committee with a desire to engage with other local churches in and around New Brunswick. A church member is running for election to their local school board. And in July, Pastor David was elected to the Board of CIC, Churches Improving Communities, "a non-profit community development corporation that pools the resources of faith communities."

I am so encouraged!

Jesus said, "Let me tell you why you are here. You're here to be salt-seasoning that brings out the God-flavors of this earth. If you lose your saltiness, how will people taste godliness? You've lost your usefulness and will end up in the garbage.

"Here's another way to put it: You're here to be light, bringing out the God-colors in the world. God is not a secret to be kept. We're going public with this, as public as a city on a hill. If I make you light-bearers, you don't think I'm going to hide you under a bucket, do you? I'm putting you on a light stand. Now that I've put you there on a hilltop, on a light stand—shine! Keep open house; be generous with your lives. By opening up to others, you'll prompt people to open up with God, this generous Father in heaven." (Matthew 5, The Message)

Lord, let us see each person for who they truly are: your child, made in Your image, deeply sinful and infinitely loved by you. Just like us. May we be used as instruments of your justice and mercy, right where we are. Amen.

Author: Norm Hurst
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